(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Recording review - Alain Johannes, Fragments & Wholes, Vol. 1 (2014)

Time-boxed creativity yields pearls of improvisation

Sometimes, it can be be excruciating to bring all the pieces together. Scattered and disjoint, they may not quite fit together into a coherent whole, but leave some out and some important facet is glossed over and missed. Fragments and Wholes, Volume 1, the latest solo project by multi-instrumentalist and producer Alain Johannes deals with this explicitly, drawing on roughed out sketches and nicely framed pieces alike. Where his 2010 release, Spark, sculpted the dynamic tension between genres and tone to create a beautiful love letter/eulogy to his late wife, Natasha Schneider, Fragments and Wholes sacrifices coherency in the interest of jump-starting creativity. Each of the 12 tracks rose out of small pearls of improvisation, fleshed out as much as possible in the short amount of time Johannes allowed himself to record the album. Like Jonathan Coulton’s Thing A Week series, the tight time constraint means that not every piece achieves the same impact, but the trade-off is that the momentum demands a quick, instinctive approach to writing and supports a feeling of immediacy.

Given Johannes’ work with Queens of the Stone Age, Them Crooked Vultures, and Eleven, along with his studio work with Chris Cornell and Soundgarden, it’s not surprising that several of these songs serve up some heavy drive and grungy darkness, but the twist is that he channels his other big influence, The Beatles, through a chain of psychedelic touchstones shared with Lenny Kravitz, Eric McFadden and Robyn Hitchcock. In fact, his vocals and arrangements often seem modeled on Kravitz, down to the DIY multi-track construction of auteur clones recording each instrumental nuance.

The first couple of tracks on Fragments and Wholes, “All the Way Down” and “Whispering Fields”, work that softer side with an airy folk-pop and a simple, late night acoustic moodiness. Like most of these tunes, they’re both relatively tiny morsels, but each packs a lot of flavor into the small space, with plenty of layers to support repeated listenings. While these two pieces show off Johannes’ lush side, he follows up with “Saturn Wheel”, which dives deeply into the shadows. Ending all too soon without real resolution, this is one of the “fragments”, but the brooding tension evokes Jethro Tull’s “Locomotive Breath” as interpreted by Soundgarden. The thick guitar and restless bass snake together, allowing glimpses of Dick Dale surf guitar fills to add some sinister glints. Even when the song slips into a dreamier interval, the relentless drive never sleeps. The solo is brief to help keep the song under three minutes, but it offers a hint of wicked depravity, barely contained within the pentagon that Johannes summoned it in.

In general, Johannes does a good job of filling out the smaller sketches, often creating miniaturized versions of the song ideas that trade off running time for packed plies of detail. Of these, the best may well be "Petal's Wish", which reminds me of Elvis Costello's classic jazz experiments blended with a taste of "Shipbuilding". Still, it’s the longer running tunes offer the most satisfaction. “Kaleidoscope” is a rich Beatlesque pastiche that manages to cross-pollinate elements of “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” with Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”. The reedy melodies meander against a solid drone. At the same time, Johannes is able to bridge his influences here, bringing in grungy processional feel borrowed from “Black Hole Sun” and then dipping deeper into darkness with the chorus. The vocals are detached and dreamy, but the music has an obsessive immediacy that made it my favorite track on the album. The dynamic drop for the close is just icing to seal the deal. Later, the four minute “Jack of Wands” offers a sense of Queens of the Stone Age trying to tap into the disquiet of Jethro Tull’s "Aqualung", The bridge slides into a Lennonesque disorientation and the lyrics remain oblique and poetic, leaving little more to grasp than the dark mood and the threatening sense of totality, "From stick to leaves."

Spark was one of my favorite albums back in 2010, and while Fragments and Wholes doesn't achieve the same heights, it's clear that Johannes is working to push his creativity to its limits. Time-boxing his work on this project forced him to make tough artistic decisions and live with them, and I think the experiment was a success.

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